Utilizing crankbaits to catch bass in river systems is a very effective summer pattern. Bass have moved out of the back waters where they were spawning and are now feeding on bait fish. Most river systems have a lot of rock and rip rap in them, and these are key areas for shad to spawn. After the water temperatures rise above the spawning zone for bass, it’s time to move to the main river and look for the shad spawn. From this point, until the fall when they return to the back waters, is a fantastic time to tie on a crankbait and do some serious catching.
In any river system, current breaks and eddies are your friend. Bass are lazy, and don’t want to fight the current if they don’t have to. A bass will look for an area that allows him to utilize the least amount of effort to survive, yet provide the best opportunities to feed. Bass will look for eddies close to the main river, so they can sit and relax while nature brings them their dinner. There are a few obvious structures that cause eddies. The end of points, rock jetties, and river bends all create slack water that bass can stage in waiting for their next meal. These are large areas, and sometimes you can find whole schools of bass loaded up in them. It’s been my experience that these schools of bass will only be average in size, and you can have a fun filled day catching large numbers of bass in areas like this. However, if you’re a tournament angler we need to break this down some and find the bigger bass in a river system.
A good place to start looking for larger bass is still in the large current breaks, like behind points and jetties, but refine it more. Inside those large breaks will be locations that are even more protected, and the king of the hill gets to use them. Larger boulders, logs that have been washed in, I even once found a refrigerator door that provided the key ingredient for larger bass.
Some highly overlooked areas that hold some of the larger bass a river has to offer are isolated items scattered throughout the river banks. Most anglers won’t notice individual laydowns along the shores of a river, much less take the time to explore them. These isolated pieces of cover are fantastic fish holding areas, and again, the king of the hill gets the best locations. Because they will only sustain two or three bass, there is less competition for the food when it comes by. You can find some of your biggest bass on these isolated pieces of cover. An isolated piece of cover does not have to be larger to be effective, a single stump in the middle of nowhere can hold a large bass.
When searching for bass on a river system you can’t over look funnels. Areas that cause the current to speed up. These can be small wash outs in a levee or as large as a simple narrowing of the river it’s self. Bass will sit down current of these areas and wait for prey that gets caught up in the extra speed of the water and is forced down current to them. Simple hydraulics is that the output of a venture will have less flow and pressure than the intake and throat. Think of a narrowing as a venture, the output being the down current side of a narrowing. As baitfish are flushed through these funnels they tend to get beat up and injured, making them very easy to catch.
We’ve covered some ideas of where to look for bass in a river, now let’s talk about how we can catch them and why the crankbait is a great choice. Crankbaits can nearly, perfectly mimic the size, action, and color of shad and crawfish. This makes them a perfect choice for covering water during a summer excursion to your favorite river system.
I have used a variety of crankbaits, testing, experimenting, and losing a few. To be honest, I haven’t found one to be exceptionally better than another. Just about the time I think I have something special, other anglers will be catching bass on something else. I have come to believe that it’s simply a crankbait pattern. Speed, type of cover, or area of the river are more important that type of crankbait. Use your confidence baits.
Personally I use several different brands. For my shallow water squarebill work, I like the Strike King 1.5 and 2.5’s. I’m not one to purchase a bait because it’s a “Classic Winning” bait; however, these are bass producers. I use basically three colors, chartreuse black back in muddier water or low light conditions, Gizzard Shad for clearer water and sunny conditions, and sexy shad in clearer water with over cast conditions; you can see all the color choices on Monster Fishing Tackle . Anytime I have bass in less than 5 feet of water, I can catch them on this squarebill. Which makes it perfect for river conditions when bass are on isolated cover along the banks.
As the summer progresses and water temperatures get higher, shad and bass will move a little deeper in the water column. Current flow normally isn’t as strong, and the water will be clearer. Bass don’t have to work as hard to stage in the current, and because of the clearer water they will move a little deeper. This is when I like to get into my Lucky Craft baits. MS Crack, Ghost Minnow, Spring Craw are all good color choices, you can check them all out here Monster Fishing Tackle. If the water has some stain to it, I like the MS
Crack. It’s very bright, however, after diving a few feet it comes into its own. If the water is clear, I turn to the Ghost Minnow. With summer comes an abundance of crawfish on river systems, making the Spring Craw a great choice in my area. Crawdad colors vary greatly by region, so try to match the hatch for your crawdad color choices.
On rivers, I rarely fish deeper than 10 feet of water. The current in rivers tend to keep them cooler and more stained, with less light penetration than area reservoirs and lakes. The cooler and darker water allows bass to stay shallower throughout the summer. Catching bass in 1-2 feet of water, throughout the summer, is not uncommon in river systems.
Using my crankbaits, I like to cover water. I have had milk runs set up that involve upwards of 25 specific locations. A single laydown, a specific boulder, a current break that has a stump in the slack water; the list of possible bass hang outs is endless. As an example, it was late spring, and our river was very high and muddy. Some much needed rain had caused very swift current. While searching for current breaks I came across a small one and on the down current side of this break there was a single boulder that was the size of a trash can lid. It was right at the water’s edge just enough to cause a swirling effect on the surface as the remaining current from the break washed past it. I fished that boulder 5 times that day and caught a quality fish from it each time cast to it.
Laydowns are my favorite cover on a river system. Many times, a single laydown, will have multiple fish on it. However, finding that one key spot on the laydown will produce quality river bass. Approaching a likely laydown from down-river, I will cast to the deeper limbs first, this is usually where the smaller fish will be hanging. I like to work these outer bass first so that catching a bass at the base of the laydown doesn’t spook them. After I’ve thoroughly worked the outer limbs of the tree, I’ll put my square bill to work. Trying to make perfect casts along the trunk of the laydown. The key in catching the biggest fish on each laydown is getting and keeping your bait as close to the trunk as possible. This requires some serious patients and practice as you will be beating your crankbait off many limbs; however, that’s what draws the strikes.
The inside bends of river channel swings are a great place to find logs and debris that has been washed down the river but hung up on a sand bar. These areas can be fantastic bass producers. They are seemingly in the middle of nowhere and are overlooked by the majority of anglers. These single pieces of cover can hold some large, lazy bass. And a lazy angler won’t take the time to fish them. An isolated piece of cover on the middle of a large sand bar can be a bass magnet. Usually these are not very brushy items. They’ve been beat up and smoothed off as it drifted down river until finally coming to rest on the sand bar. This makes fishing older laydowns or logs with a crankbait very easy. In this situation, I like to make a few casts across the up current side. Bass will be sitting in the current break facing up current watching for shad to wash down river. If that doesn’t produce, I’ll work the crankbait right through their living room, where the current break is. Normally one of these two presentations will produce a bass. What’s excellent about these isolated pieces of cover and a river system is that they will replenish themselves. I’ve seen new bass move onto a piece of isolated cover within an hour.
Most river systems I’ve ever fished, has a series of levees to help protect the main channel from silting in. These levees can have some of the best bass fishing of the year. The levees create current breaks and provide hiding areas for several different species of food a bass likes to eat. Finding current breaks on the levees is not hard to do, but finding that perfect cast that will generate strikes can be. I’ve seen anglers pull up to levee breaks and make five or six casts and move on. Generally they made the same cast each time. Unless these anglers have already done their homework, this is a huge mistake. On a river, if you find a current break, you’ve found bass. The trick is finding what will trigger those current break bass into eating. That trigger will normally be an angle, a depth or hitting a specific object. It’s worth your effort to make multiple casts at different angles, and different retrieve speeds to try and find that trigger. Once found, repeating the cast can trigger multiple strikes; for that particular break. Each current break can be different. It’s difficult for an angler to be able to tell exactly what the current is doing under the water.
Just like fishing a reservoir, aimlessly casting a crank bait will produce a few fish; however, casts that are precise and retrieves that bounce a crankbait against cover or the bottom will trigger more strikes. Deflection is the key. The erratic movement from deflecting a crankbait against a hard object has a magical effect on bass. I actually think it’s more important in river systems than in reservoirs. Because of the current, bass don’t have to work hard at finding summer prey, the river brings it to them. Getting a bait in tight to the cover where the bass are living is a must. Envision this, as schools of shad swim through the laydown, they quickly swim in and out of the limbs with ease. But, one miss judges the current, a limb, or is injured and can’t swim well and runs into a limb and stalls for a split second. Out of all those shad that just swam through that laydown, which do you think will get eat? Making your crankbait hit limbs, makes it appear to be hurt or stunned, this is that magical trigger. A bass is a very fast predator, and any sign of weakness means food.
Next time you’re on a river system and find a laydown, move in close enough to it that you can clearly see the limbs. Now, take your crankbait and bounce it off the limb and see what happens. Current washes sediment down the river; this sediment collects on the rocks, brush, and grass throughout the river. When your bait hits that limb you should see a small dust cloud form where you bait contacted the limb. If you’ve ever walked the banks of a river, or lake for that matter, and seen crawfish scurry across the bottom, you’ve noticed a dust cloud very similar to that of your crankbait running into the limb of the laydown. Bass have many senses. By running your bait into that limb, you’ve given them a visual and audible clue that your bait is a natural occurrence, and they better jump at the opportunity. Bass have learned through feeding, prey that has already been beaten up is easier to catch, even if it was self induced by running into something.
As with any body of water, we need to take weather conditions into account when building a pattern. On bright, calm, sunny days, it’s vital to get as close to the thickest limbs as possible when fishing laydowns. If you’re pattern involved rocks or vegetation edges, look for bass to position a little deeper. Cloudy days or when there is a lot of wind and wave action, I’ve found that it’s not as important to be critical with bait presentation. Bass will relax and roam a little bit more. So, you’ll be able to work a little wider on cover items, while rock and vegetation bass will be a little shallower. Personally I like the bright, sunny days, it tends to position the fish in very predictable locations.
To wind this up, I’d like to mention again that many of the key areas on a river system will replenish themselves very quickly. There are a lot of bass roaming a river looking for that best spot. Once you’ve found a key cast, specific location, a single stump or laydown that produced a strike, odds are you’ll catch multiple fish from that same location throughout the summer. Once winter rains hit; rivers rise, and bottom contours change, old debris is carried away and new debris is carried in, you’ll have to start all over again. This ever changing world can make for some exciting and unexpected bass fishing.
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